Block and delete: Navigating safe spaces on social media

I’ve been tinkering around with a view on social media. It is this: You are under no obligation to engage with anyone you don’t want to. If you post an observation, an opinion, a confession, an emotional outpouring, even a simple life update, and you receive an inflammatory response, it’s important to understand that you own this space and that it is not necessary to put up with dissenters, trolls, unnecessary comments, non sequiturs and abuse. Delete or block as you see fit—it’s your Facebook profile, your Twitter feed, your Tumblr page. Don’t let others infringe upon your comfort and safety within your own space.

I hold this view to an extent and will deal with those intricacies soon, but allow me to illustrate how this view developed. Recently, with the murders by police officers of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile and the murders by militant sniper of police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith and Michael Krol in Dallas, I have seen a number of acquaintances and friends (mostly of color) posting disillusioned, pained, and drained statuses revealing their thoughts on these atrocities—most having to do with police misuse of power, outrage over the current state of gun control in the U.S. and anxiety over the condition of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now, most of these status updates aren’t set up for discussion. The posters aren’t asking for their views to be challenged. These people are posting these sorts of things in a public setting in order to gain solidarity, find solace within a community, process their feelings, try to make sense of the condition of the world. Even for those who want to engage in constructive debate, their words are there begging for an aggressive retort. But regardless, I have witnessed a number of people responding to said statuses with suspicion, disbelief, even hatred and spite.

For example, a black Facebook friend observed (subjectively, granted) how quickly popular opinion swings toward condemning black men, in light of how certain media outlets highlighted Alton Sterling’s prior record after the news of his death went viral. If it were a white man, he pointed out (as many have), then this situation might never have even happened.

A few minutes later, a white man comments, attempting to call the original poster out for going out of his way to define this murder in racial terms. Now this friend enjoys a good debate, so he replied in defense of his observations. But the commenter kept going, becoming increasingly incoherent and grammatically suspect, repeating his argument that this issue should be treated with colorblindness.

This was only one of many such instances of this immediate, vehement dissent against anyone voicing their opinions or feelings on the topic. I saw friends, especially those of color, deal with such dissent. I saw people with public profiles deal with it. I saw people deal with it on the comments sections of news pages all over the internet.

I thought about this strange widespread reaction awhile and formulated this view of social media as safe space.

I posted the following status:

Remember you are under no obligation to engage with anyone in your Facebook comments, or to even give them a platform at all. If you just need to vent your grief and frustration over the last couple days and you’re tired of arguing over the legitimacy of your feelings, then by all means, delete or block as you see fit.

It got some attention. No dissent really, though. I thought about that and wondered why, because even I have some questions about this practice of deleting and blocking people who disagree with you. Have I been filtering my social media connections in such a way that only people who agree with me have access to my statuses?

Well, the internet is weird and engaging with people on it is tough. It was dominated by John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (Regular person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad) for most of its life—probably up until the era of mainstream social media useage. Well, actually, it does still dominate the internet. In light of this new era of greater transparency in internet social interactions, however, the theory is in need of a little trimming: Cut out the “anonymity” part. It still stands. Regular people are much more likely to be fuckwads on the internet despite how openly they present their fuckwaddery.

Unfortunately, this theory has been status quo for so long that these fuckwads are viewed as an inherent aspect of the internet. I consider the inherent fuckwaddery of the internet an outdated notion, one in serious need of revision.

We need to reconsider the status quo for the sake of our universal mental health within this social media-saturated culture. The role social media plays in our everyday lives now is near-essential—from community-building among outcasts and minorities who may not be able to find such communities in real life, to the ability to connect and collaborate together with people from all across the world, to the socially-easing element of being able to look at someone’s profile and better understand them without even having to have a conversation, to the simple tasks of communicating with our loved ones and putting together plans with friends. Having this crucial space overlap with a space where people can call you at the drop of a hat an idiot, a faggot, a dipshit, where people can deny your racial struggle, where people can say that women don’t experience discrimination, where they can deny your worth as a person, insist that Hillary Clinton is the devil, where they can photoshop your Muslim friend into a suicide bomber—it’s not a sustainable space, and certainly not a healthy one, one where people can learn and grow.

This in mind, I support people managing their social media spaces as they see fit. Delete annoying and harmful comments, block people who consistently bother or harass you, weed your social media acquaintances until you’ve found people you respect and appreciate, who inspire you and help you develop.

Yet I say this with reservations. While I believe it is important to find a space free from microaggressions, free from inflammatory rhetoric and unwelcome dissent, I also believe that people shouldn’t shy away from confronting opinions which differ from their own. It’s hard, I know. I’m certainly guilty of ignoring and deleting my fair share of people I just didn’t feel like giving the time of day. As a friend of mine said recently, “Social media makes me rage because it’s such a safe fucking venue in so many respects. We’ve become so good at only surrounding ourselves with likeminded people that it really does not fucking matter what you post. You’re not reaching anyone who needs convincing.”

To be sure, he has a point there. The only addendum I must add is that social media’s sole purpose is not to cater to debates between opposing perspectives. This is where I struggle to have my cake and eat it too, though, because I think social media can and should be both a safe space and a space for contention—a space where people can be both find some peace of mind and where people can debate topics that may not be particularly pleasant.

Judith Shapiro’s piece for Inside Higher Ed “From Strength to Strength” emphasizes the importance of not protecting people (in this context, students) from everything that may upset them. Regarding the concept of safe spaces on college campuses, Shapiro finds that the “implication is that certain students, depending on their identities or preferred activities, are ‘unsafe’ on other areas of campus. This magnifies the sense of personal danger out of all proportion and interferes with students’ appreciation of what it means to be in real peril. It is an obstacle to the development of authentic courage.” Now, Shapiro fails to define what she means by “real peril” and “authentic courage” here. I find this troubling because it seems to suggest that there is no “real” peril to experience on college campuses—racism, sexism, homophobia, toxic social circles—and that students should just suck it up. Shapiro suggests here that like internet fuckwads, real life fuckwads are here to stay and there’s nothing to be done about it. There’s a fatalistic acceptance of them. I am certain that minorities experience aggressions, both micro and macro, on the daily and see no real fault with cultivating spaces where likeminded individuals can come together and get away from all that. In my mind, it is a courageous act to demand such spaces on college campuses in the first place.

Here’s the thing: In discussions of safe spaces there is a serious lack of distinguishing between civil discourse and straight-up harassment. This needs to be addressed. In a presentation on the pro-threatening-women-on-Twitter, anti-censorship-of-anime-boobs campaign GamerGate (shared as the keynote at my alma mater Lawrence University’s Women & Identity in Gaming Symposium), Kill Screen founder Jamin Warren used Twitter statistics to reveal how the two “sides” of the issue (GamerGates versus the “social justice warriors”, who are really just an intersection of women, people of color and queers who want more games where people look like them and don’t have to just shoot stuff) fail to actually engage with one another, creating a giant echo chamber on either side. While that’s a real problem, it fails to observe why that is. Google around on the issue for a while and you will observe that GamerGaters are not concerned with civil discourse. Harassment campaigns against game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, writer Lindy West, critic Anita Sarkessian and games archivist Becks Hernandez all reveal that this contention isn’t centered on discussion. It’s tossing inflammatory rhetoric with no room for compromise, no peace between the opposing viewpoints, no solidarity within the mutual enjoyment of videogames. They’re out for blood.

At the same time though, I must admit I’m actually quite critical of the so-called social justice warrior crowd for going the way of mockery and memes at the expense of GamerGaters instead of pushing for respectful discourse. It’s understandable given the amount of psychological harm inflicted upon this community, but this echo chamber effect causes the issues to fail to move anywhere. People are less likely to critique the games criticism video series Feminist Frequency—one of the main sources of derision for GamerGate—despite the fact that measured criticism is necessary in response to such content, just because they don’t want to be aligned with GamerGaters. They don’t want to claim imperfections within their own community, don’t want to be viewed as antagonistic toward their kin. Both “sides” suffer this. GamerGaters and the “SJWs” have so many opportunities for nuanced critique of Feminist Frequency, but instead they respectively focus on whether or not showrunner Anita Sarkessian is a “true gamer” or defend the show entirely. The former is boring, the latter disingenuous. A shame.

Applying these observations to social media spaces at large, one can see how, as my friend pointed out, people only surround themselves with people who agree with them. I can see the value of these spaces. Yet, I want these spaces to also be a source of deepening intellectual discourse. I believe that in trying to have this cake and eat it too, context is important to keep in mind. As the shootings in Dallas and of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile make clear, the emotionally vulnerable stage immediately after events in question are absolutely not the time for discourse.

I think back to when Joan Rivers died. I’m a huge fan of American comedic history and really deeply felt the ways Joan Rivers paved the way for women in comedy. She had problematic views and an obnoxiously ostentatious lifestyle, but her death hit me hard and I thought she deserved some public reflections. So a day after the news of her passing, I made a post about her, mentioning that she was a powerhouse of a woman and improved the state of American comedy in a number of ways. It wasn’t meant to be a persuasive essay, rather a reflection on what I would remember her as, yet someone decided to retort, calling her vicious, transphobic, anti-feminist. I deleted the comment and told the individual in a private message to consider not interrupting my grieving process a day after the woman died. On another day, perhaps when she was still alive, I would gladly have engaged in a discussion of Joan Rivers’ problematic aspects. But this post was not meant for discussion. The context was akin to a speech at a funeral. Rivers may not have been a personal friend, but her work and legacy means something to me and I wanted to process my emotions following her death. I would even have allowed the same to people mourning Nancy Reagan, despite the harm she and her husband put upon the LGBTQ+ community by ignoring the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. The moments after one’s death simply aren’t the time to engage like that.

Before you engage critically with someone, consider the context of their work. If they aren’t opening themselves up to debate, if it may be disrespectful considering the emotions involved, then refrain from commenting. It’s not your time.

Yet when it is the time—well, this is where respectability and I get into a tricky tango. In “Black Women and Men: Partnership in the 1990s: a dialogue between bell hooks and Cornel West presented at Yale University’s African-American Cultural Center” (featured in hooks’ collection Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics), West makes an astute point on criticism within black communities which can be applied to any communal space:

“We need to affirm one another, support one another, help, enable, equip, and empower one another […], but it can’t be uncritical, because if it’s uncritical then we are again refusing to acknowledge other people’s humanity. If we are serious about acknowledging and affirming other people’s humanity then we are committed to trusting and believing that they are forever in process. Growth, development, maturation happens in stages. People grow, develop, and mature along the lines in which they are taught. Disenabling critique and contemptuous feedback hinders.”

What I found striking about this passage is that West argues for the affirmation of one’s humanity as the base by which people criticize others. And there’s something quite profound in understanding that. Both the critic and the person being critiqued must understand it if they are to avoid escalating vehemence.

It’s not easy, for sure. As mentioned, one really needs to appreciate the context before they put forth counterarguments. In such a highly contentious and rhetorically violent an issue as GamerGate, one really needs to especially establish the respect and legitimacy of the debate before engaging in it. One also shouldn’t be a random individual either—not that you need to be best friends, but understand that people are far more receptive to the voices of those they appreciate and respect (you don’t even have to like them, keep in mind). And though I’m admittedly wishy-washy on the value of respectability politics, I see no reason for inflammatory rhetoric in these discussions. Aggressive, okay. But ad hominem, lack of revision and refinement, not appreciating the greater context from which the post developed—these are problems.

The acceptance of critique and feedback as necessary aspects of community are a remedy for the over-protective nature of college campuses that Shapiro calls out in her piece. It may also help GamerGate find some kind of solution, as the GamerGaters learn to engage in civil discourse and the “SJW” crowd understand the importance of critiquing their own community. The understanding that critique comes from a place of love, not of condescension or malice but indeed a call to grow as a community, can help to avoid the echo chambers and finely-filtered innocuous social media safe spaces.

Sometimes we need a space to simply vent our feelings and views where dissenters do not dwell; sometimes we need a space to grow through contentious debate. The understanding that social media should encompass both spaces is crucial to the betterment of our digital communities.

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About Bryan Cebulski

Writer. Cis queer. History, masculinity, media. Point-and-click adventure protagonist. He/Him/His. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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